A new study on industrial robots has found that the automation of industry costs jobs on a national scale, and raises some interesting questions on the impact of technological advances on society.
The research, carried out by economics professors at MIT, Paris Saclay, and Boston, found that French firms that introduced robots into the industrial process became more profitable and productive. However, this automation actually caused a net loss of jobs on a market level, as competitors who were unable to keep up with early adopters were forced to cut their workforce.
It is very easy to fall into fear-mongering and visions of tin-foil hats when it comes to discussing the dangers of technology, but this study is proof that there is reason to pause and reflect on the motivations behind our constant advancing. We cannot say with certainty whether such job losses are permanent; it is likely that many of those laid off would be able to find new roles in other fields. That being said, for me this situation reflects a broader societal discussion on where technology is taking us.
When considering the potential drawbacks of technological progress, one thing that comes to mind is the link between the rise of smartphones and social media, and the decline in mental health among young people. Again, it is a cliché, but there is a definite argument to be made that a hyper-connected world is leading to more isolation, and we are witnessing a growing movement of people pushing back against social media and stepping away from their phones.
Similarly, the argument in favour of increased automation in manufacturing and industry is that it will make our lives easier and cheaper, removing the need for heavy lifting and menial labour. But if this actually shrinks the job market, and leaves those in industry without a trade, should this make us question the implications before rolling out widespread technological services?
It is hard to say with certainty what the future will bring, but I think that this represents an important reminder that it is vital to try and visualise the bigger picture when undertaking a task or a project. Without looking at the whole map, it is easy to lose track of where you are going.
In a paper titled "Competing with Robots: Firm-Level Evidence from France," economics professors Daron Acemoglu (MIT), Claire LeLarge (University of Paris Saclay), and Pascual Restrepo (Boston University) analyzed 55,390 French manufacturing firms to study the economic impact of robot adoption. Within that data set, 598 French companies deployed industrial robots between 2010 and 2015. The researchers found, as they expected, that firms adopting robots shed jobs as they became more profitable and productive. They also created jobs internally, but those gains were more than offset nationally by job losses among competitors who were unable to keep up with the early adopters. "Overall, even though firms adopting robots expand their employment, the market-level implications of robot adoption are negative," the paper says.